Thursday 12 April 2012

Is it sacrilege to chop up Wagner?

It seems that never a month goes by without there being a new recording of arias from the great operas. A look at the best seller lists will show that most of these are very popular. Furthermore, no one seems to mind that these arias are taken out of context as they can usually stand alone as great pieces.

But what about more extended excerpts or arrangements of music from operas? This seems to invoke quite different responses including the oft quoted phrase ‘bleeding chunks’, used for such excerpts, especially in respect of Wagner.

Rimsky Korsakov was quite happy to draw extracts from his operas but at least this was his choice.  Chandos  have re-issued Neeme Järvi’s fine 1984 recordings, with the Scottish National Orchestra, of overtures and suites from the operas, at mid-price.

CHAN 10369 (2) X

There is absolutely no indication that Janacek wanted anyone to make orchestral arrangements of his operas and, indeed, I think that he probably wouldn’t be very happy about it. However, Peter Breiner has done just this with suites from six of Janacek’s operas, Jenufa, The Excursions of Mr Broucek, Kata Kabanova, The Makropulos Affair, the Cunning Little Vixen and From the House of the Dead.




These suites, lasting from thirty one minutes to thirty nine minutes, can in no way give a true reflection of the complete operas but what they do give is the opportunity to listen to some very striking and beautiful music.

Some commentators have questioned the point of these arrangements and I can see why they do. To experience the full range of Janacek’s operatic works there can be no substitute for listening to the operas in full. However, the three CD’s issued by Naxos, beautifully played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Peter Breiner himself, do give much pleasure.                                                

However, the main thrust of this blog asks ‘is it sacrilege to chop up Wagner?’ I will say outright that nothing whatsoever can beat the full experience of listening to a performance of a complete Wagner opera. I would not be without my complete recordings of all the Wagner operas.

But I have to say that Neeme Järvi’s performances, on Chandos , of Henk de Vliegers’ orchestral arrangements of Wagner’s Ring cycle (Der Ring Des Nibelungen), Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, in vivid sound, are really quiet stunning.  

CHSA 5060

CHSA 5077

CHSA 5087

CHSA 5092

Järvi directs the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in magnificent performances that manage to overcome the main difficulty of such arrangements, which is the loss of dramatic contrast that the operas themselves provide.  Järvi has managed to achieve this by perhaps emphasising the dramatic more than the poetic but these are nevertheless thrilling performances. What they also do is remind me to put aside a long evening to hear a full opera.

Distilling fourteen hours of the four operas that make up the Ring cycle into 60 minutes is bound to create problems, which are no less when attempting to do the same with, for example, Die Meistersinger, where over four hours of music are condensed into just under forty eight minutes.

Back in 2000, Lorin Maazel recorded his own ‘symphonic synthesis’ of the Ring cycle which he called ‘The Ring Without Words’ . This was a 75 minute orchestral ‘distillation’ of the four operas. Interestingly Maazel stated that he was ‘strongly influenced by the comments of Wagner’s grandson, Wieland, about the importance of the orchestra in the Ring’. An interesting argument.

If you really want the full experience of Wagner, with all the weaving of themes and all the poetry and drama, go for one of the number of complete sets of the operas on offer. I have particularly enjoyed a 33 CD set from Decca of the ‘Great Operas’ all recorded live in Bayreuth including Karl Bohms’ Ring cycle recorded in1967 and 1971 as well as his famous 1966 Tristan und Isolde. (sadly this set seems to be currently unavailable) or collect each opera singly and get to know each one at your leisure.

But what of the question ‘is it sacrilege to chop up Wagner?’ Am I sitting on the fence? Well perhaps, but Jarvi’s four Wagner recordings for Chandos are such that I’m not going to quibble over the rights and wrongs. I think that these CDs may be my guilty pleasure.

My next blog will look at Chopin. What kind of pianist was he?

No comments:

Post a Comment